(CNSNews.com) – Claims that his regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Khan Sheikhun on April 4 were “fabricated” by the U.S., colluding with al-Qaeda terrorists, to provide a pretext for Friday’s cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase, President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview released Thursday.
Accusing the U.S. of working “hand-in-glove with the terrorists,” he charged during an interview with Agence France Presse that “they fabricated the whole story in order to have pretext for the [missile] attack.”
Assad said the images on social media and television of supposed victims of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun constituted “stage one” of the U.S. plan, and the subsequent missile strike on the airbase was “stage two.”
He said his government does not possess chemical weapons, having surrendered its stockpile in 2014 (under a deal brokered by Moscow in 2013.)
“We don’t have any chemical weapons – we gave up our arsenal three years ago,” he said. “Even if we had them we wouldn’t use them, and we have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.”
The U.S. accuses the regime of using lethal sarin gas against civilians in Khan Sheikhun last week, killing more than 70 people. The administration said this week it has high confidence that at least one munition containing sarin was dropped from a Syrian air force Sukhoi Su-22 warplane.
The U.S. and Western allies also hold the Assad regime responsible for an even deadlier sarin attack in Ghouta near Damascus in August 2013, which the U.S. government says cost more than 1,400 lives.
Assad and his Russian ally dispute both allegations, blaming the Ghouta attack on “militants” and putting forward various scenarios about Khan Sheikhun, including the claim that a rebel chemical weapons storage facility had been bombed, or alternatively that it was a so-called false-flag operation designed to attract or provide a pretext for outside intervention.
It was the latter theory that Assad expounded in his AFP interview.
He said the only source of information about what happened on April 4 was the group that controls the area.
“Khan Sheikhun is under the control of al-Nusra Front, which is a branch of al-Qaeda, so the only information the world have had till this moment is published by al-Qaeda branch. No-one has any other information.”
(Later in the interview, Assad claimed that al-Nusra fighters “shaved their beards” and donned white hats to appear as “humanitarian heroes.” He was referring to the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group working in rebel-held areas that has received funding from the U.S. and other Western governments. The State Department a year ago credited the group with having saved more than 40,000 lives during the civil war.)
According to Assad’s narrative, the U.S. wanted to strike at the Syrian army because the terrorists that it has been supporting for the past six years were “collapsing” in the area.
“So, the United States didn’t have any other choice to support their proxies, the terrorists, but to directly attack the Syrian Army.”
Before Friday’s airstrike, President Trump said the attack on children had had “a big impact” on him.
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal – people were shocked to hear what gas it was,” he said. “That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”
Assad, however, questioned whether children seen in footage had been killed in Khan Sheikhun – or been dead at all.
“We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhun. Were they dead at all? Who committed the attack if there was an attack?”
Asked again whether he thought it was a fabrication, he replied, “Definitely, a hundred percent for us, it’s fabrication.”
Assad says he had no prior warning of the airstrike, plays down damage
Elsewhere in the interview, Assad appeared to contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the timing of the warning the United States gave to Moscow before two U.S. Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean targeted the Syrian airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The Pentagon says it alerted Russia ahead of the action, using a “deconfliction” hotline established to minimize the possibility of incidents in Syrian airspace, where Russian warplanes and those of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition are flying.
Putin said earlier this week that Trump’s decision to launch the strike “was completely unexpected, aside from the fact, of course, that we learned about it a few hours in advance.”
But Assad told AFP that the U.S. alerted Russia either “a few minutes before the launching” or possibly even sometime between the time the missiles were launched and they struck their target.
Asked whether the Russians had warned him about the impending strike, he replied, “No, they didn’t warn us because they didn’t have the time to warn, because the Americans called them maybe a few minutes before the launching, or some say after the launching, because it takes time to reach the base.”
Nonetheless, he added, “we had indications that there was something that was going to happen, and we took many measures in that regard.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday it was the Pentagon’s assessment that the strike damaged or destroyed “20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft.”
Assad disputed this, saying he did not know what reference point the U.S. was using to make that determination.
He played down the damage done to his air force, saying “a few airplanes” were destroyed,
“Most of them are the old ones; some of them were not active anyway.”